Brewing microorganisms is almost an act of faith. You add some ingredients to the brewing tank, wait 24 hours and then apply the discoloured water to your soils or crop. You can’t see the new workforce you have created so you simply trust that something worthwhile is involved. You can, of course, minimise the guess work by buying yourself a microscope or by taking advantage of the free NTS service where one of our Chemists/Agronomists will check out your efforts and offer guidance if necessary. You will also maximise the potential of biological multiplication if you follow a standardised brewing protocol. Here are the essentials for successful microbe brewing.
It is not just about reclaiming tired soils, releasing locked up phosphorus, fixing nitrogen or creating a disease resistant soil. Soil structure, water management, plant health and productivity are all part of the potential gift package when you refurbish your biological workforce.
The Seven Essentials
Hygeine is essential if you want to avoid contamination of your brew. Microbes are everywhere but they accumulate wherever there is a food source. Any residual liquid from your last brew, left in the bottom of the tank or within the pipes attached to the pump, is food for other organisms. It consists of microbe food and huge numbers of the bodies of those creatures you last brewed. Pathogens can breed up in these residues and some of them can be inadvertently brewed up, along with the good guys during multiplication. To avoid the introduction of undesirables, your brewing system should be cleaned and sanitised immediately after each brew and before beginning a new brew. NTS has developed a high-powered agricultural disinfectant, Path-X™, which is an ideal tool to sanitise the system before and after brewing. It simply involves the addition of 20 – 50 litres of water containing 10 mL of Path-X™ per litre (a dilution of 1:100). Alternatively, you can just use household bleach or hydrogen peroxide as a sanitiser but make sure that the disinfectant has been completely flushed from the system or you may kill or compromise the beneficial workforce you are trying to multiply.
The microbe food source must be sterile. Microbes need the same things that we do. They require, protein, carbohydrates and fatty acids and these could theoretically be sourced from something as simple as dog food or, perhaps, soya bean meal. The problem is that these potential foods are invariably contaminated with a multitude of organisms, many of which can multiply during the brewing process. It is much better to start with a food that is completely sterile. You may be concerned that if a biocide was used to sanitise the food source then it may have a negative effect on the beneficial microbes in the brew, but this is not the case. Concentrated liquid food sources are generally used at one litre per 100 litres and this level of dilution ensures that the biocide has no ongoing negative effect. NTS has developed an exceptional liquid food concentrate for brewing microbes, LMF™ (Liquid Microbe Food). This food contains a wide range of nutrients to nurture the multiplying organisms and to ensure good microbe counts in the end brew.
Contaminated brewing water can be an issue if the only available water for brewing comes from a dubious farm dam. In this case the water can be easily sterilised with pool chlorine but the chlorine should be gassed off before adding the microbes. This process is simple to monitor. Just bubble the treated water with your aerator until there are no further emissions of chlorine gas (this process usually takes around 60 minutes) and then add the food and microbes.
Use your nose to monitor your progress. If the end brew has an unpleasant smell, then it may be contaminated and not safe to apply to your crop. I have seen anaerobic brews that have actually done crop damage, so this is an important consideration. An unpleasant smell usually heralds either contamination or poor aeration. Poor aeration can sometimes be linked to overheating during the brewing process. Heat is generated during the free-for-all, breeding party that unfolds during microbe brewing. The heat should be monitored throughout the brewing process and ideally should not exceed 30 degrees centigrade. You will need to throw cold water on the proceedings if overheating occurs.
Choose a brewing inoculum that best suits your requirements. For example, if you have used a multitude of chemicals in your farming operation over the years, it is a safe bet to assume that you will benefit from building biodiversity. The best choice here is compost tea, as you are multiplying many thousands of different species and re-introducing this diverse workforce to your soils. If your farm has a history of applied phosphate and you are seeking to access the locked up reserves that are part and parcel of the use of acid phosphate (up to 70% of everything you have applied in the past), then you will get a more pronounced response if you select a task-specific inoculum to release this frozen reserve. We have had tremendous results for the past 15 years in over forty countries with our task-specific inoculum, Nutri-Life 4/20™. Unlike compost tea, this blend contains huge numbers of a couple of dozen specialist species that excel in the release of locked-up phosphate and the fixing of nitrogen from the atmosphere. You will always see a more pronounced and obvious response with a task specific inoculum, like Nutri-Life 4/20™, due to the nitrogen and phosphate response, but this should not detract from the importance of building biodiversity with compost tea. There are also cellulose digesting fungi in the Nutri-Life 4/20™ blend and it is now possible to select for either bacterial or fungal dominance when brewing.
Use molasses or sugar sparingly as bio-stimulants during microbe brewing. These simple sugars tend to select for a limited number of bacterial species and these species then completely dominate during the brewing process. The end result is less biodiversity and an increased likelihood of brewing undesirable organisms. For example, E. coli runs rampant in the presence of these simple sugars during brewing. It is a far better option to use fulvic acid to encourage bacteria. This natural acid boosts the full spectrum of bacteria.
Create your compost tea inoculum from several different compost sources for maximum response. There are quite different mixes of species in different compost sources. A compost made from cow manure contains different organisms to a compost made from chook manure, pig manure or no manure. The ideal inoculum would involve a little of each. The compost should be stored separately before use rather than blending the mix in advance to avoid a likely loss of biodiversity that can occur over time in the warfare world of the soil foodweb. Seek the very best sources of these different composts and the cost is immaterial. Even if you pay an exorbitant price for a great compost, shipped from thousands of kilometres away it does not matter. There are only very small amounts of actual compost required to make compost tea. For example, one kilogram of compost makes one hundred litres of compost tea and that amount is applied to a hectare. If the compost costs as much as $400 per tonne, this still only equates to 40 cents per hectare, so you might as well source the very best inoculum.
If you have not yet discovered the multiple benefits of microbe brewing then it is time for a pleasant surprise. It may sound like some strange, foreign process but it is really quite simple and incredibly cost effective. You can source a 1000 litre shuttle for around $300 or a 200 litre drum for $50 and these serve as microbe brewing tanks (depending upon the scale of your operation). A small submersible pump can be used in the 200 litre drum or a spa pump can be utilised in the shuttle. You can make your own venturis to deliver oxygen or you can source venturi kits from NTS. We will offer advice to help a D.I.Y setup or we can supply a range of accessories for microbe brewing. The bottom line is that many soils have been biologically compromised with extractive agriculture and microbe brewing offers a unique opportunity to re-charge soil life at minimal cost.
The Eighth Essential
We’ve discussed the seven essentials for successful microbe brewing but there is an additional requirement that is at least as important. This eighth essential relates to your capacity to control the microbe brewing process to achieve a desired species mix. Herein lies a major problem experienced by most people who have embraced bug brewing.
It is really difficult to achieve fungal domination when brewing microorganisms. This is a constant frustration because it is beneficial fungi that are the creatures most lacking in most soils, when a soil life count is conducted. Bacteria subdivide at a much more rapid rate than fungi, so, in a brewing situation, it is inevitable that the bacteria take command and unfortunately this creates undesirable conditions for fungal proliferation.
Bacteria release alkaline exudates, but fungi prefer acidic conditions, so this simple biochemical ploy magnifies the bacterial dominance. You can start a compost tea with a compost, rich in visible fungi, but the bacteria that are still present exert their dominance within hours.
One trick that helps slow down the bacteria is to add an acid material to the brewing tank. The pH of the brewing solution must be maintained below 5 throughout the process to encourage fungal domination. Vinegar or citric acid are popular choices but unfortunately it is not as simple as it sounds. The bacteria don’t give up without a fight. They continue to release their alkaline exudates knowing that if they can spike pH above 5 then they can resume control. The pH of the brew solution must be monitored throughout the 24 hour brewing process and more acid material is often required. This does not bode well for those who like their sleep!
It was an important step forward in brewing technology and user friendliness when NTS developed Dominate-F™, a liquid that can maintain the ideal pH for fungi, throughout the brewing process, with the simple addition of just 1 litre per 100 litres of brew. Dominate-F™ is the eighth essential and it is not just limited to success when brewing fungi. There is also a Dominate™ product that ensures huge numbers of bacteria.
Dominate-B™ sponsors a brew that is jam-packed with beneficial bacteria to the extent that it has often reached saturation point. Typically, a microbial brew needs to be applied the moment that it is completed – after the aeration ceases beneficial (aerobic) bacterial cells and fungal hyphae quickly decline. However, with the use of Dominate-B™ or Dominate-F™, the conditions of the brew encourage the formation of either fungal or bacterial spores.
Nutri-Life 4/20™ and Dominate™ – Perfect Partners
Most of the developmental work with Dominate™ involved working with the popular NTS microbe inoculum, Nutri-Life 4/20™. This freeze-dried blend involves both fungi and bacteria. Dominate-F™ allowed us to produce a large numbers of beneficial fungi when brewing Nutri-Life 4/20™, the most abundant of which is a remarkable species called Trichoderma. Trichoderma is a multifunction species that can improve fertiliser efficiency and contribute to the creation of a disease suppressive soil but it is also a voracious cellulose digester that can build humus very effectively. A tank full of Trichoderma could now be produced for a very low cost and we were justifiably excited.
If, however, the goal is to access free nitrogen from the atmosphere or to unlock some of your frozen phosphate reserves then you may prefer to use Dominate-B™ in conjunction with Nutri-Life 4/20™. With this inexpensive addition, you can now achieve huge numbers of desired species in a stable brew that will last for up to two weeks.
The Top Five Reasons to Brew
To boost humus building capacity – when carbon is stored in the soil as humus it is not creating havoc in terms of greenhouse gases and global heating. The key creatures (cellulose digesting fungi) required to build stable soil humus have been decimated in most conventionally farmed soils. Brewing offers an inexpensive option to get back in the game by replenishing these missing workers.
To reclaim your phosphate investments – soluble phosphate turns out to be a pretty ordinary investment as it is openly acknowledged that you lose on average 73% of applied phosphate to lockups in the soil. This raw deal is destined to get worse as Peak Phosphate arrives. When the first half of a non-renewable resource has been used, the second half rises and rises in price, until supplies are eventually exhausted. There has never been an exception to this trend in the history of economics. Many commentators now believe that the planet reached Peak Phosphate in 2001 and, if so, the price will continue upward. There is a massive frozen reserve of phosphate in Australian agricultural soils (in areas with a history of phosphate fertilising) and it is a great strategy to reclaim this frozen reserve by brewing and applying phosphate solubilising organisms.
To reduce nitrogen expenditure – the atmosphere contains the equivalent of 5000 truckloads of urea (as nitrogen gas) per hectare, and that is where we were supposed to access much of our nitrogen. Free-living nitrogen fixing organisms can be easily brewed and for minimal cost you can receive a significant percentage of your crop’s nitrogen requirements from the atmosphere.
To build a disease-suppressive soil – a fungal disease does not reflect a lack of a fungicide, it heralds a soil food web imbalance, where the creatures who would normally feed upon the pathogen, are no longer present in your soil. The chemical sledgehammer is often not the best solution. In this era of greater soil life awareness and research we now know that chemical control creates collateral damage. The chemicals can affect species other than the intended pathogen, and that can create a whole new range of problems. If you can build your biodiversity with compost tea and specialist inoculums you can reclaim both soil-life balance and your peace of mind.
To reduce the crop’s water requirements – humus can hold almost its own weight in water but there is another way in which introduced biology can minimise water usage. Bacteria release a sticky, gel-like substance that serves as a protective bio-film to slow down their predators. A single protozoa, for example, consumes 10,000 bacteria each day so it is a handy survival mechanism to become like “the boy in the bubble”, to escape their ravenous attention. The good news about this sticky jelly is that it works almost like water crystals in terms of moisture retention in the root zone. It is common for growers to report significant reductions in irrigation requirements following the introduction of a regular brewing program.
Disclaimer: Prices quoted are estimates only and may vary without notice. Prices quoted are in Australian dollars.